Carnegies So White: The (Lack of) Progress of a Children’s Book Medal

cover

BAME authors are still chasing the Carnegie star. Malorie Blackman’s book was nominated, but not longlisted.

The longlist for the Carnegie Medal came out last week. The Medal, offered by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), is the equivalent (for American readers of this blog) of the Newbery Award. CILIP describes it and its partner award for picture books, the Kate Greenaway medal, as “the UK’s oldest and most prestigious children’s book awards. Often described by authors and illustrators as ‘the one they want to win’, they are the gold standard in children’s literature” (http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/). This year, the Carnegie celebrates its 80th birthday.

636

Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights won the Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction, and was nominated for the Carnegie–but not longlisted.

Unfortunately, it will not be celebrating by awarding the medal to a Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic writer for the first time. We can be sure of this, even though the medal will not be awarded for some months, because the longlist does not contain any of the nominees from those communities. Of course, the prize is not awarded to authors, but to books, and the Carnegie defends itself in an article in The Bookseller by Natasha Onwuemezi by saying that while CILIP “acknowledges and respects the concerns expressed,” the nominees were “judged on merit and on an equal playing field” (“CILIP fends off criticism over lack of BAME authors on Carnegie longlist” 16 February 2017). Nick Poole, the CEO of CILIP, added that the books on the longlist were “selected by youth librarians who work with children and young people every day in schools and communities” (“CILIP fends off”). These statements are troubling, as they imply that books by writers such as Alex Wheatle, Malorie Blackman, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, and Patrice Lawrence have less merit than those by white writers. By saying this, and arguing that the playing field is “equal,” all writers and all readers suffer. The damage to BAME writers is obvious—their books are not promoted as award-winning, and thus will often fall out of print faster, not to mention any knock to self-confidence in being passed over again. BAME readers do not get to see themselves truly represented in award-winning books. But white readers also are encouraged to think that quality belongs to white authors only, and this will affect the choices they make about books. Their world will be limited that much more. As for white authors—well, I would not want to win the Carnegie this year, as I would always feel that I had won partly because BAME authors were excluded. However, I worry least about white writers—to make a parallel with another cultural industry, Adele may have thought that Beyoncé should have won her Grammy award, but she didn’t refuse it or give it back.

girl-of-ink-and-stars

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s book has been longlisted for the Branford Boase–but not the Carnegie.

To take CILIP’s arguments one at a time, we can start with equality. If the playing field were “equal” then by the law of averages, BAME writers would appear on the longlist (at least!) on a regular basis. Britain is 87% white, and even if you take into account the fact that white British are overrepresented in children’s publishing AND children’s librarianship (but don’t forget that the playing field is equal, ahem), they are not 100% of the writers out there. And if BAME writers are never represented, then that suggests that the playing field is not, in fact, equal. The people choosing are not choosing blindly.

30822387-_uy650_ss650_

Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy has been shortlisted for the Leeds Book Prize–but it wasn’t longlisted for the Carnegie.

In terms of merit, most of the nominated books have been put up for—and indeed, have won—other children’s book prizes. Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights won the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize in November (Blackman’s Chasing the Stars was also nominated). Orangeboy by Lawrence has been nominated for the Costa Book Awards and shortlisted for the Leeds Book Prize. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Girl of Ink and Stars has been longlisted for the Branford Boase Award. Hargrave’s book along with Malorie Blackman’s Chasing the Stars and Patrice Lawrence’s Orangeboy were all nominated for the inaugural Jhalak Prize, which includes adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction from BAME authors. According to the Guardian’s Danuta Kean, “The Jhalak was launched following publication in 2015 of Writing the Future, a damning report from writers’ development agency Spread the Word about BAME representation in UK publishing” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/05/first-british-books-prize-for-bame-authors-unveils-inaugural-longlist). (But the playing field is equal, don’t forget.)

Finally, with regard to Poole’s comment about librarians working with children “every day,” this suggests that somehow librarians choices are partly reflecting what children like and want to read (somewhat muddying the argument about books being selected on “merit”—children like all sorts of books, but what they like and what is good quality literature are not always the same). This again plays upon the “majority rule” argument. Librarians select books for the longlist based on what kids respond to—but if what they respond to is what they are taught to respond to, they will never read out of their comfort zone. They will continue to want books written by white authors from a white perspective, because that is what they are used to. This goes for BAME readers as well as white ones. The BAME readers who want something different often turn away from books altogether if they can’t find ones that, at least sometimes, represent their experiences and perspectives. Librarians need to model the value of being challenged in their reading, and not always reinforcing the status quo. (But the books are judged on merit, just as a reminder.)

Last year, I participated in a Carnegie shadowing group, where we read all the books on the shortlist and discussed their merits (the Carnegie encourages these, but as far as I know they do not take any shadowing group’s opinions into account when judging). One of the books on the shortlist, though written by a white author, had not-white characters in it, and was admired by many in the group—until the sole BAME person in the group mentioned some of the ways that the author missed the mark. Having listened to her, we agreed that it was still a good book, but not one we would award the Carnegie Medal. It is this kind of feedback that is critical in broadening the perspective of award committees. At the end of the day, if the Carnegie Medal going to truly represent the best in British children’s fiction, CILIP needs to listen to the voices of all of Britain.

John Agard wants the name Mary Seacole to be as familiar to children as nursery rhymes.

A Valentine to Black Britain: British Children’s Poets Namecheck their History

My blogs lately have been very serious, so in honor of the holiday, I thought I’d do something just a little lighter—though still with a serious purpose. Because (as my daughter can tell you), there are no days off for learning. This habit of tireless education comes from my dad, who Knows Everything. If there is a quiz on a walking tour, or Final Jeopardy comes on, or you were wondering what the lyrics were to a 19th Century folk song, just ask my dad. This broad-based, encyclopedic knowledge in the person of my father is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, growing up in the days before the internet, I didn’t need to worry about the library being open to finish my homework. On the other hand, after I reached the mature age of, say, eight or so, I began to suspect that if I didn’t know everything too, there might be something wrong with me. “How do you get to know so much?” I would ask. His answer was usually, “Good liberal arts education.” I had no idea what that meant.

diego_rivera_dia-14b4be86cf81730d11b

My dad and Diego Rivera taught me that art IS history.

What he meant, he practiced. My dad supplemented my education by taking us to jazz concerts, black and white movies, the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Kellogg Cereal Factory (okay, any factory he could get us into), and through countless houses old (describing their architectural features) and new (describing their shoddy construction and shortcuts). I learned to suck up this knowledge. In school, and with my dad, you never knew: there may be a quiz.

But through this eclectic mix of educational field trips, I also learned that subject matter was not isolated, and that you could contain more knowledge if you lived it, sang it, saw it, ate it. So part of my Civil Rights history came from listening to Motown; my knowledge about Cesar Chavez from school was reinforced when we stopped buying grapes at home. The art museum and the cereal factory did not have to be worlds apart. Paul Robeson was not just a singer.

One of the cheapest and easiest ways to get these multiple levels of learning in small packages is through what Ezra Pound called “the news that stays news”: literature. Black British poets, particularly, have long been interested in conveying more than just the music and rhythm of words. Many of them have tried, through their children’s poetry, to teach a specific history, a history not taught in most history books: Black British history. They do this in many ways, but John Agard, Valerie Bloom, Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephaniah all have poems that reference a specific history: they all write about other Black British and Caribbean literary characters and authors, and they do it in a way that integrates with other cultural and literary histories.

c22567

Bloom’s poetry starts with the familiar, and gives readers some history to wonder about.

Many Caribbean and Black British authors write about Anansi, for example. The trickster spider whose tales originally came from West African mythologies and have been changed and modified to fit first Caribbean and then Black British situations is a popular way of introducing young children to their cultural roots. But both Zephaniah and Bloom use the familiar figure of Anansi to link with other figures connected to Caribbean history. Bloom, in “Tell Me a Story” (Let me Touch the Sky Macmillan 2001) has her poem’s speaker ask for stories from her grandmother. “Tell me a story please, Granny,/ ‘Bout Anancy and Tacoma” (64) the poem begins. But it ends with another, lesser known trickster—a real-life escaped slave who went on to lead the Maroons in raids against the British, Jack Manson. “Tell me a story, please, Granny/ Tell me ‘bout t’ree finger Jack” (64). Bloom’s poem does not explain Three-Fingered Jack’s story, but instead encourages the reader to find it out.

51pfbmqlkal-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Zephaniah’s world links history and music, Anansi and Marley.

Zephaniah’s poem, “Everyone’s Friend” (Wicked World Puffin 2000) connects Anansi with Jamaica’s most famous singer ever, Bob Marley. The poem, a commentary on the cult of celebrity, argues that everyone now claims to have been a close personal friend of Marley, even “A smart spider known as Anansi” (32) and “Freedom fighters called Maroons” (32). Even though Zephaniah’s name-checking is ironic, since both Anansi and the Maroons existed long before Bob Marley’s rise to fame, his use of these two groups is not accidental. In using these figures in his poem, Zephaniah is linking Marley’s music to the history of resistance to oppression that both Anansi (as a trickster figure) and the Maroons represent.

39656c901208c12aa5cfd7ccf5992850-600x400x1

John Agard wants the name Mary Seacole to be as familiar to children as nursery rhymes.

Both John Agard and Grace Nichols introduce specific Caribbean authors to their readers through their poetry. Agard, in his popular poem, “Checking Out Me History” (Half-Caste and Other Poems Hodder 2004), highlights the deficits of a British education that teaches “bout ole King Cole” (61) but “never tell me bout Mary Seacole” (61), the Jamaican nurse who wrote her autobiography about her experiences nursing in the same war as Florence Nightingale. Like Zephaniah’s and Bloom’s poems, Agard’s encourages readers to use poetry as a starting point for learning, and reading, more.

img_29301

Grace Nichols’ valentine to Sam Selvon–and her child readers.  Illustration by Kim Harley.

The Grace Nichols poem that I want to end with is the most indirect “name-checking” of all these poems, and the child reader might take years to make the connection. “‘Summer is Hearts,’ says Sammy Selvon” (Give Yourself a Hug Puffin 1996) is a direct reference to the novelist Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and its most famous passage, the ten-page stream of consciousness about the brief joys of an English summer for West Indian immigrants. Selvon’s “summer is hearts” passage could not be read to children; it is full of sexual exploits. Nichols’ poem distills the emotions from Selvon’s novel into two-word lines, including (perhaps referencing the sexuality) “folks bolder” (23). In Nichols’ poem, Sammy Selvon is a boy, not a man, not a writer—but a boy who will one day become both. The poem plants seeds of knowledge about history (Sammy Selvon may ring a faraway bell when a child grows up and sees a book in a bookstore) and about literature (made up of words that describe the beauty of being alive). For Nichols, as for the other poets I mention here, poetry is a way to tell the history that they love and they want readers to embrace.

Black Bookstores do so much more than scratch a book itch, as Micheaux Nelson's book attests.

Words of Danger, Words of Power: Radical Bookstores and Children

new-beacon-bookstore

One of the longest-running Black British bookshops, started by John La Rose; the George Padmore archive is above the shop.

I have a collection of about 1000 children’s books specifically related to the Caribbean and Black Britain. They date back to the 1700s, but the bulk of them come from the twentieth century. This collection started when I discovered the radical Black bookstore, New Beacon, in London. New Beacon opened in 1966, and their children’s collection included both new books and impossible-to-find-anywhere-else books, pamphlets, educational texts, posters that they had offered for sale since the early seventies. Many of the items had been available for Black British supplementary schools, after-school or Saturday programming that aimed to solidify necessary skills as well as teach the history and literature that the mainstream British schools ignored. I could find anything here, from a 1971 poetry anthology to introduce secondary school students to poets like Martin Carter, Edward Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, to a Black History poster from around 2010 highlighting famous (and not-famous-enough) Black Britons. The major chain bookstores in Britain often kept new Black British titles only a few months at most, and even they usually only stocked such titles in London or Birmingham. If I had been out of the country when a book first appeared, I knew I would have to get to New Beacon. I spent tens of hours and hundreds of pounds there from the time I discovered it in the late 1990s.

img_2920

I bought AN Forde’s 1971 anthology of (mostly Black Caribbean) poets at New Beacon for two pounds, sixty-nine pence.

By that time, New Beacon was one of the last remaining Black British bookstores in London. During the 1970s, New Beacon was one of many Black and radical community bookstores; others included Bogle L’Ouverture Press founders Jessica and Eric Huntley’s Walter Rodney Bookshop, Centerprise in Hackney, and the Peckham Publishing Project. All of these sold children’s books designed specifically to connect African, Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, and Black British children to their roots. Often, the bookshops encouraged radical activity, particularly with the rise of the National Front in the 1970s. Bookshop owners John La Rose and the Huntleys, for example, organized marches against the police after the New Cross Fire. The community bookshops published books from members of their community. Centerprise published the poems of Hackney schoolchildren, and Peckham Publishing Project produced (among other books) Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus, a book about a child with dreadlocks that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog. In a hostile climate, Black British and radical community bookstores were safe havens where children could learn about their own history, culture, and place in British society.

img_2921

Young Black Britons might know Malorie Blackman and Benjamin Zephaniah, but this poster I bought at New Beacon also introduces them to the first Black Briton to write his life story, Briton Hammon.

The tradition of the Radical Black Bookstore is not, of course, just a British one. Recently I came across a children’s book that celebrates the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (Carolrhoda 2015) is Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s tribute to her great-uncle, Lewis Michaux, who started the bookshop in the 1930s. The bookstore’s exuberant façade is captured in pictures by R. Gregory Christie, in which it is clear that Lewis Michaux was influenced by thinkers such as Marcus Garvey. His bookstore influenced others as well, both the ordinary reader and the famous, and Micheaux Nelson discusses visits by Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. And through the viewpoint of the young son of the bookshop’s owner, Micheaux explains both the history of oppression of the African-American community and the need for African-American-specific bookstores. The young narrator tells a story familiar to anyone connected with books and the Black community: “When Dad went to a bank to borrow money to open a bookstore for black people, the banker said no. He said Dad could have a loan to sell fish and chips or fried chicken, but not books. The banker told him, ‘Black people don’t read’” (n.p.)

the2bbook2bitch

Black Bookstores do so much more than scratch a book itch, as Micheaux Nelson’s book attests.

The banker might have told Michaux that some in white society prefer it when Black people don’t read. When Michaux finally gets his bookstore, his son comments that every time he looks out the store window, “There are some squad cars . . . Dad jokes, ‘Anytime more than three black people congregate, the police get nervous’” (n.p.). Michaux’s experience of the suspicion of white society is mirrored in other Black bookstore owners; the Huntleys’ Walter Rodney Bookshop, for example, was regularly sprayed with racist graffiti, and according to Margaret Andrews, “Racist material including National Front literature and animal excrement were pushed through the letterbox” (Doing Nothing is Not an Option 137). But despite the surveillance and the racist attacks, Black bookstores in the US and the UK stayed open through some dark periods in history because, as The Book Itch concludes, “WORDS. That’s why people need our bookstore” (n.p.).

Michaux’s bookstore closed in 1975, according to his great-niece. “In 1968, the area of 125th Street and Seventh Avenue was chosen for construction of a new state office building. Some felt that officials had purposely targeted this site to disrupt bookstore activities. Lewis was forced to relocate his store . . . It remained open for several years until Lewis received notice from the state that he was being evicted”. Washington DC’s Black bookshop, Drum and Spear, had closed a year before Michaux’s. The Walter Rodney Bookshop hung on until 1990, by which time rental costs in London had begun their sharp climb upwards, and years of the Thatcher government had reduced funding for multicultural initiatives.

img_2922

R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations make it clear that Lewis Michaux had no intention of hiding his radical ideas, even when the police were right around the corner.

John La Rose’s New Beacon bookshop made it until their fiftieth anniversary, but now they too have closed their bookshop doors (they continue to maintain the George Padmore Institute Archives on the bookshop site, 76 Stroud Green Road—and it’s a vital archive of post-Windrush Black British history). For decades, the Black bookstore has provided history, culture and radical politics to populations that often have nowhere else to go to access these things. As we enter a new political era, I would argue that these spaces are more needed than ever. If you have a Black, radical, or community bookshop near you, no matter what your own background, go patronize it today. That bookshop’s existence may save the life of or provide the support for a young reader who will grow up to challenge our increasingly unequal society.

Taking a Red Pencil to the Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees

bb2014-the-red-pencil

Not wanted–Pinkney’s novel depicts a girl fleeing from conflict who only wants an education.

“Sec. 5.  Realignment of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for Fiscal Year 2017.  (a)  The Secretary of State shall suspend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days.  During the 120-day period, the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Secretary of Homeland Security and in consultation with the Director of National Intelligence, shall review the USRAP application and adjudication process to determine what additional procedures should be taken to ensure that those approved for refugee admission do not pose a threat to the security and welfare of the United States, and shall implement such additional procedures.”

“Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States.  The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.”

“The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.  In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

–from the Executive Order on Immigration issued 27 January 2017 (full text of the order can be found here: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/31/512439121/trumps-executive-order-on-immigration-annotated).

There have been numerous lists published this week on blogs and on various social media sites about children’s literature dealing with migration and refugees. It is an issue of our times, as countries of the global south experience many of the after-effects of colonialism, racism, and global economic inequity and people leave their homeland both to escape war and violence and to seek a more economically-stable life. This past week that issue came into even sharper focus when the US president issued an executive order on immigration. The order has been referred to as a “Muslim ban” because the seven countries where visas have been halted are all predominantly Muslim countries, and the only exceptions made in the order are for “persecuted religious minorities” in these countries. There are many aspects of this that can be discussed, and I can’t discuss them all, so I just want to focus on one of the seven countries, and a children’s novel that offers red pencil correctives to some of the implications in that order.

img_2911

Devils on horsebacks: the Janjaweed who burn Amira’s village to the ground.

Andrea Davis Pinkney’s and Shane Evans’s The Red Pencil (Hachette, 2014) is set in one of the seven countries whose nationals can neither immigrate nor even visit the US, Sudan. Sudan is not only primarily Muslim, it has been wracked by civil war, and more than 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. The executive order says that, in places like Sudan, people become more desperate to get to the US, and will use “any means necessary” to do so. But Pinkney’s novel paints a very different picture. Amira, the twelve-year-old main character, is only vaguely cognizant that a place like the US exists (she sees “pink people” with “teethy mouths/ speaking English” on a “flicker box” in the camp [Red Pencil 162]). She never mentions wanting to go there, even after she arrives in the armed-guarded displaced persons camp. She longs only for her lost home, destroyed by “torches/Flames hurled to the roofs./ Our livestock pen alight with fire” (112) when the Janjaweed militia raided and burned her village to the ground. Knowing she cannot return there, however, does not mean she thinks of getting to America by any means necessary. The only other place she thinks about going is school.

img_2910

Amira uses her pencil to tell the truth about becoming a refugee.

School for Amira has been a dream because girls are not encouraged to get an education in Sudan. She is not taught how to read or write until she has lost everything else and is in the refugee camp. When she is given a red pencil by a Sudan Relief worker, she does not know how to use it. She feels trapped by lined paper in the same way she feels trapped by the barbed wire fences surrounding the camp, but she learns how to ignore those lines and create something beautiful or something truthful. “the pencil’s music./ It plays on paper,/ shows me highs,/ lows,/ in-betweens” (210). Amira draws angry pictures of the “wicked helicopter . . . spitting big bullets” (208) and of the Janjaweed, “devils on horseback” (59), but she never speaks of revenge. For Amira, the Janjaweed are like the dust storms that ruin the crops, and how can you revenge yourself against nature? Amira’s only possible response is a creative one, and the red pencil she is given by an American organization allows her “soul’s bird [to] wake” (208) and, eventually, to fly.

img_2913

Will refugees be able to fly free in more than their imagination? “What else is possible? I am.”

But even if her soul’s bird yearned to fly to freedom in America, she could not do so. She is not someone who might “engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation”. She is a child, not a potential terrorist, who has never held a weapon and only wants to learn, and create. She is the victim of war, not the perpetrator. A month ago, a real girl like Amira still would not have been allowed to come to the US as a refugee, because she is still in Sudan and to be designated as a refugee by the UN you need to be relocated to an intermediate country. Less than one percent of the world’s refugees are ever resettled, because the process of resettlement has been made extremely arduous by countries wanting to protect their borders and put their nationals first.  Now, however, the executive order will prevent Sudanese from even that much hope, until and unless someone else’s red pencil strikes through the refugee ban. Fiction such as Pinkney and Evans’s The Red Pencil allows us to humanize an experience not one of us would choose.

Never Too Early to Begin: Resistance and Literature for Youth

This week, several people working for various US government agencies, including the EPA, the department of the interior, and the department of agriculture, have reacted to the Trump order barring external communication (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-epa-contract-freeze-media-blackout-20170124-story.html) by creating alternative, or rogue, twitter accounts. Even those agencies who haven’t done so have found interesting ways to speak out. My favorite was Death Valley National Park, whose official Twitter site, @DeathValleyNPS, took time yesterday to tweet, not about the climate change science that is so annoying the Trump administration, but about the history of Death Valley and Japanese internees. “During WWII Death Valley hosted 65 endangered internees after the Manzanar Riot,” one tweet read. This came on the same day that Trump signed an order to (temporarily, he says) prevent refugees from entering the country and banning visas for people from certain Middle Eastern and African countries (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-immigration-exclusive-idUSKBN1582XQ). The timing of the Death Valley tweet did not, to some readers, seem coincidental; one asked if they’d ever tweeted about this “during the last 8 years”—i.e. during Obama’s presidency. As it turned out, they had; the park feels that history, as well as nature, matters. In this case, the history is complicated; the word “hosted” is interesting, because of course the Japanese-Americans moved to Death Valley were still in an internment camp, and they were moved because other Japanese-Americans at Manzanar thought they were collaborating with the government. But the @DeathValleyNPS tweets serve as a reminder that resistance to official, authoritarian, or institutional policy can come in many forms.

img_2909

Abolitionists sow the seeds of justice in 1847.

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at several different kinds of children’s literature from a variety of locations that promote resistance to such policy, both recent and historical. The oldest book I’ll mention here is also for the youngest audience: The Anti-Slavery Alphabet from 1847, published for the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Fair that year (although the book is without pictures, sales were apparently “brisk” according to the society). I’ve written about alphabet books before; seemingly innocuous, they have frequently been used to further activist agendas suggesting that, as the epigraph on the Anti-Slavery Alphabet reads, it is necessary to “In the morning sow thy seed” (n.p.). This sentiment is made even more explicit in the rhyme that accompanies the alphabet’s letter “Y”: “Y is for Youth—the time for all/ Bravely to war with sin;/ And think not it can ever be/ Too early to begin” (n.p.). Youth, according to the book, can begin to war with the sins of adults as early as they begin to learn their letters.

img_2908

Year 3 students at St James Primary School in Manchester created this leopard, looking shocked at Anansi’s ability to trick him.

And youth’s own creative powers are what will counter society’s wrongs. A picture book from the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Trust may not be as openly didactic as the abolitionists, but Anansi Makes it Happen (2011) has equally activist goals. The AIU trust was set up in response to the racially-motivated murder of a 13-year-old boy by one of his classmates in Manchester in 1986, when (as now) migrants to the UK were being told to “go home” even when they were there legally and/or from birth. The education arm of the trust, run by Jacqui Ould, “aim[s] to celebrate the creativity of children and teachers in our multicultural city” (inside front cover blurb from Anansi Makes it Happen). Ould helps multiracial schools create versions of stories from a variety of the places from which migrants to the UK have come. The Anansi stories retold and illustrated by two primary schools honor the Caribbean and African migrants to Manchester. Knowing all this background makes the first story in the collection, “Why Spider Lives in Ceilings” that much more poignant. In the story, powerful, carnivorous Leopard not only steals Anansi’s home, he plans to eat the spider when he tries to return. Anansi is not defeated by Leopard’s size or power; he uses creative methods to stay alive and keep his home, just as the schoolchildren telling the story are using their creative powers to become authors and the AIU Trust supports projects to make the UK a more welcoming place for those who might be seen as weak or powerless.

9781484781517_p0_v3_s192x300

In our imaginations, we all fly free. Cover design by Maria Elias.

Both The Anti-Slavery Alphabet and the efforts of the AIU Trust address people who are already present in a country, whether through forced enslavement or through voluntary or involuntary migration. Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (2016), on the other hand, is a powerful reminder of what it is like for people who exist in the no-man’s land of refugee camps. The main character, Subhi, is Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar/Burma. But Subhi himself is not from Myanmar, or from Australia where he is living in a detention center guarded by armed soldiers. He was born in the camp, and knows no other life until the story begins. The camp is a miserable place, with not enough food, medicine, clothing or suitable housing, let alone education for the children. As Subhi’s sister comments, “‘Here, we are the dead rats they leave out to stop other rats from coming’” (109-110). But as Fraillon points out in her afterword, “desperate people continue to seek safety in countries lucky enough to boast peace” (230). She comments about the Australian government’s law making it “a criminal offense to disclose the mistreatment of refugees in detention” (231) before suggesting places where information on this mistreatment can be found. Fraillon’s fictional imagining of the camp in The Bone Sparrow encourages readers’ empathy, and hopefully will result in their activism.

img_2907

Anthologies can encourage resistance too; this one includes the poems of Mikey Smith. Cover illustration by Tony Hudson.

Since I’ve written about alphabet books from America, folktale retellings from British children, and a middle-grade novel from Australia, I’ll end with another literary form for a different audience that comes from a different country. Jamaican poet Mikey Smith is anthologized in Facing the Sea: A New Anthology from the Caribbean Region for Secondary Schools (eds. Anne Walmsley and Nick Castor; Heinemann, 1986). His inclusion is important because he is a good poet, but also because he is a poet of resistance who was (allegedly, but only because no one has ever been charged) murdered after heckling government officials. Smith’s poem, “Me feel it, yuh see” tells what happens when young people are oppressed for too long by the institutions that surround them who “devalue dem dignity” (Facing 105). Smith’s poem concludes poignantly but powerfully: “anytime yuh see/ de yout-man-dem stumble/ doan tink dem fall./ Watch out!/ Dem a plan fi meck yuh bawl!” (106). With enough resistance, even walls fall down—and that’s a lesson that all kids should learn.

Let My People Go (on Holiday): The Magic School Bus does Ancient Egypt

A696_sch_CVR_0.tif

Would Ms. Frizzle teach history as well as she taught science?

Nearly twenty years ago (!), I wrote a book on children’s science fiction series with my friend Marietta Frank, Back in the Spaceship Again (Greenwood, 1999). One of the series that I discussed, and liked very much, was Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen’s Magic School Bus series. After complaining that “In picture-book science fiction series, scientific concepts are both presumed and presented incorrectly” (65), I go on to praise Magic School Bus for being “accurate and simple” (66). So when I was looking for children’s nonfiction texts on Ancient Egypt recently, and saw that Cole and Degen had produced a book on Ancient Egypt in their Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures series (Ms. Frizzle is the teacher who took children into scientific adventures on the Magic School Bus), I ordered it straight away. I wanted to see how the book would depict Ancient Egyptians in terms of both their appearance and in terms of their labor system, as both aspects of Egyptian society have been important to people of African descent. In both cases, Cole and Degen’s book seems to avoid issues rather than confront them in ways that the scientific adventures in the Magic School Bus series do not.

magicschoolbus

The Magic School Bus series teaches science in a simple but accurate way.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures differ from the Magic School Bus books in several ways. First, the Magic School Bus books take place within a classroom setting; Ms. Frizzle takes her class on field trips on the eponymous bus that doesn’t have to follow the laws of physics—so the class goes inside the human body, out into space, and back in time to the era of the dinosaurs. The children write reports on what they learn, which the reader can see and evaluate. Student learning is therefore the focus, even though the books contain fantasy, adventure and humor as well. But in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt, the teacher is not in her classroom. “It was the first day of school vacation. I had said goodbye to my class. I had packed my bags and locked my door. Now I, Ms. Frizzle, was on the move!” (n.p.). In the Magic School Bus books, the story is part of the school curriculum, and is focalized through the adventures and school reports of the students. The Ancient Egypt book, on the other hand, is from the point of view of Ms. Frizzle, acting not as a teacher but as a tourist, and it is definitely extra-curricular. This says, I think, a lot about the attitude toward primary school history, and also about who history matters (or should matter) to; the group of tourists that Ms. Frizzle joins is made up of more adults than children. There are no school reports.

img_29031

Rasheeda, seated in the bottom right-hand corner, writes in her diary about what she sees. Her vision of a single marketplace becomes the truth of all Ancient Egyptian marketplaces.

In place of the school reports, however, Cole and Degen have depicted pages from one child’s travel diary. This might at first seem like a fairly equal substitute; both are child accounts of knowledge gained through their adventures. But the Magic School Bus school reports include reference to the work of scientists, and also make room for alternative theories. For example, in The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System (Scholastic 1990), one child writes in a report on asteroids, “Scientists think they are the building blocks of a planet that never formed” (24). This technique teaches child readers both about current theories and about the idea of theory itself, recognizing that ideas about science change as new knowledge becomes available. History, as depicted in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures, however, is fixed. Rasheeda’s travel diary does not refer to historians, only describes what she sees. Diary entries begin with definitive phrases: “In the marketplace we saw” (n.p.) and “What farmers grew” (n.p.). Scientific knowledge has the potential to change over time, but history, in these books, is known and knowable. This makes the illustrations of Ancient Egyptians matter, because here again, a “truth” about history is depicted. Degen’s illustrations show Egyptians as orangey-brown in skin color, to random degrees, with Rasheeda—the African-American visitor from modern times—as considerably darker than all of them. Modern Egyptians are tan-colored. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures leaves no room for the idea that Egyptians may have included some people who had more “African” features.

img_29061

Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery does not paint a pretty picture of slavery (although it doesn’t say the slaves built the pyramids either).

Another reason that this difference between Cole and Degen’s depictions of science and of history matters so much (particularly for a blogger concerned with ideas of race and diversity) becomes clear on a single page of the narrative, the page about who built the pyramids. I have written before about how books on slavery often begin with Ancient Egypt—see, for example, Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery (Usborne 2007).

img_2904

“People” are wrong about slavery. These Ancient Egyptians are perfectly happy to be dragged from their farms and do hard manual labor–as long as there is beer.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures also mentions slavery, but in quite a different way. “People often think the pyramids were made by slaves,” Cole and Degen write, “but that isn’t true. Pyramid builders were paid in bread and beer, just like other workers” (n.p.). The language that Cole and Degen use in this passage is extremely important, because it removes authority (historians did not think that the pyramids were built by slaves, people did—and they were wrong), suggests that slavery did not exist in Ancient Egypt (and, whatever the truth about who built the pyramids, historians are pretty sure that slavery existed), and defines not-enslavement as being paid in bread and beer, as if slavery couldn’t have existed if the workers were fed. Rasheeda’s diary entry adds, “Many farmers worked on the pyramid during the flood, when their farms were underwater” (n.p.), suggesting that the farmers were glad of some off-season work (and beer and bread). Both the box about what “people often think” and Rasheeda’s diary entry present history generally as factual, and these facts specifically as the correct and only interpretation. However, even historians who think that the pyramids were not built by slaves (at least not in the way that we think of slavery now), do not think the workers were part of a labor market of free individuals. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, with the University of Chicago, put it this way in an interview with the PBS show Nova: “the King’s men come, and it may not have been entirely coercion, but it seems that everybody owed a labor tax. We don’t know if it was entirely coercive, or if, in fact, part of it was a natural community donation”  (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/who-built-the-pyramids.html). The key words there: we don’t know. Teaching kids about history should open them up to the same kind of questions and possibilities that teaching them about science does, not just offer them half-truths and surface-level observation. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt lets kids go into the past, but only as temporary tourists who are kept away from history’s wrong side of the tracks.

Questioning Normal: Children’s Literature that reminds you what is, and should be, ordinary

cover

Blackman has long played with the idea of “normal” for Black British children’s books, partly through embracing the genre of science fiction.

Have you ever read a book and had to remind yourself about some aspect of a character because they seemed so “normal”? Oftentimes, though not always, this idea of the normal simply means “this character seemed so much like me that I forgot about *insert attribute that is not like you*”. If the attribute that you insert is about the color of the color of the character’s skin or their ethnicity, the idea of “normal” becomes more than just a curiosity. Often in books (at least those published in the UK and the US), characters are presumed to be white until proven otherwise. Child readers, and many adult readers as well, do not always question the consequences of presuming that characters in books will be white. But assuming whiteness as normal has an effect on individual readers, as well as what gets published, particularly for children.

img_2896

How do readers define normal? Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, pictures by Elaine Mills, offers one definition.

My own interest in Black British children’s literature came from a discussion with a Black British friend (now my husband) who said he didn’t read any kids’ books growing up because he wasn’t in them. This is a story that I have come across in my research more than once, not only in terms of what kids read, but what kids write. Both the philosopher Darren Chetty (in multiple articles, which you can find listed here: https://www.tes.com/news/author/darren-chetty) and the publisher Verna Wilkins, have discussed how children’s literature is perceived by child readers to be a “whites only” world. In an article in the Guardian, Wilkins links this realization to her decision to become a publisher: she “explained that she was moved to launch the publisher when her son came home from school with a booklet, on which he had coloured a picture of himself in pink. She offered him a brown crayon to fix it. “It has to be that colour. It’s for a book!” he told her.”I had no choice. I had to become a publisher,” said Wilkins” (article by Alison Flood, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/20/diversity-children-books-colour-young-people). Wilkins wanted to normalize the Black British experience in her books for all readers.

That desire to make the Black British experience normal occasionally brought Wilkins in for some criticism, however. In a review of Wilkins’ first book, Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book (1987), Ama Gueye worries about “the lack of “reference pointers . . . which make any strong statement about Kay’s Afro-Caribbean cultural background” (“Review: Tamarind” Dragon’s Teeth Summer 1987: 22). Wilkins, however, did not want to write/publish books that highlighted otherness; for her, writing Black British characters in situations that readers from many backgrounds (including the dominant one) would also identify with and understand was the best way to make Black British children’s literature “normal”.

chalk-doll-charlotte-pomerantz-paperback-cover-art

Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Chalk Doll tells the story of a Caribbean birthday–different, but still “normal”? Pictures by Frane Lessac.

Another, almost opposite, way to approach the same question is by introducing experiences of people from outside the dominant (racial/gender/ability/ethnic) group as normal too. Author Chitra Soundar, for example, blogged about the idea of the birthday in children’s picture books, and her search for books that would show birthday experiences that go beyond the British birthday party (http://picturebookden.blogspot.com/2017/01/celebrating-birthdays-from-many-cultures.html; if you know of any that she may have missed, I know she would love for you to comment on the site!). She makes the point in her blog that too many picture books show only one version of normal, and this can alienate children from their cultural background. The downside of this approach is not in the books themselves, but in the way that publishers and booksellers often “exoticize” these alternative normalities, marketing them as only interesting to particular groups or teachers wanting a culturally diverse book collection. The result, as Soundar’s blog points out, is that these books often go out of print quickly, because they are not seen as books for “all” or “normal” (both adjectives which generally are code words for “white”) readers.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707

Nina is Not OK–but she’s not “ethnic” either.

For authors who are not white, the idea of “normal” can have an effect on how they think about their own work. Last week, I was very excited to see the longlist for the Jhalak Prize, a new prize exclusively for writers of color in the UK. It follows in the tradition of other prizes, particularly for children’s literature such as the Collins/Fontana Award for Multi-Ethnic Literature (awarded in the 1970s) and the Other Award (from the 1970s to the 1980s), which highlight the achievements of writers and books about characters from outside the dominant group. The Jhalak Prize is not exclusively for children’s books, but their judging panel includes two authors who have written for young people, and considers children’s literature as well as adult literature. Most of the authors longlisted, including YA authors Malorie Blackman (Chasing the Stars), Patrice Lawrence (Orangeboy) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink and Stars) expressed their pleasure at being nominated, but Shappi Khorsandi, author of Nina is Not OK, asked that her book be withdrawn from consideration. She explained on Twitter that she was flattered, but “my novel is nothing to do with ethnic identity” (for more, see Katherine Cowdrey’s article in The Bookseller, http://www.thebookseller.com/news/shappi-khorsandi-withdraws-book-jhalak-prize-long-list-463586 or listen to Khorsandi’s interview on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme from Saturday 7th January). So if a book is about non-ethnic—or normal?—topics, then it cannot, in Khorsandi’s mind, be considered for an award for authors of color. This suggests that the “ethnic” experience is definable, and different, than the experience of the dominant majority. And sometimes it is, as Chitra Soundar’s experience attests—but sometimes it isn’t, as Verna Wilkins tries to show in her books. When I made my list of “50 Books to Diversify your Classroom” for the Times Educational Supplement in October (https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/50-books-to-diversify-your-class-reading-list-11397499), I tried to consider multiple types of experiences. Because normal is not a single point on the continuum of children’s literature and experiences, but a range—and as readers, and selectors of books for children, we need to expand our own definition of what constitutes normal.